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November 13, 2008

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Maria Visconti discovers an old Japanese art form with a modern twist. Hirosaki, a quiet town in Japan's snow country, is better known abroad for its castle than for being home to a revolution in sound. When I heard a live shamisen performance was on near the train station, I expected the gentle twang of the courtly instrument played by a kimono-clad geisha. But this was something different. I looked hard to locate the band but there were only two guys on stage stirring up a soundstorm so intense it stopped us in our tracks. This was gutsy, bluesy music. The two players took turns improvising then launched into a musical duel that left the cheering aficionados breathless.

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You may have seen a shamisen in the sophisticated Japanese scroll paintings of the Edo period (1603 to 1868) - a long-necked, three-string fretless instrument with a square parchment body, played with what looks like a lacquered hair ornament, called a bachi. Originating in China, the shamisen arrived in Japan via Okinawa in the 16th century and became the ultimate classical instrument to accompany kabuki performances. The kimono-clad players I expected instead wore jeans and Tshirts. One of them sported fashionable highlights on his long, dyed-brown hair. But there was nothing Western about the intense concentration and posture these musicians displayed. They looked as if they were about to leap from their rough stools into the painted mountain scenery behind them. Every so often the players emitted a "Huh!" marking the end of a phrase. I closed my eyes and was transported to grassy plains where Mongolian ponies run with the wind in their manes. When the session was over, the musicians jumped off the stage and began taking food and drink orders. But the surprises were not over yet. One by one, 12 players took the stage - men and women who might have been the grandparents of the younger players, armed with different-sized

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shamisen - and the session began. A dignified matron stood and sang the songs of old itinerant bards seeking supper and shelter away from wind and snow. Later, the young players retook the stage with the style made famous by the Yoshida Brothers who brought the shamisen to international attention when they provided the music for the promotional shorts for Memoirs Of A Geisha.The writer travelled to Hirosaki as part of the Japan Northern Journeys itinerary from World Expeditions.

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More information: See http://www.worldexpeditions.com/au regarding its 16-day train tours of Japan, including Hirosaki, or phone 1300720000. Source: The Sun-Herald

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